Report: Using funds to keep parks open in government shutdown violated law

Cars line up to enter at the south entrance to the Grand Canyon in this file photo. The National Park Service diverted funds from maintenance accounts to keep the park partially open during this year’s government shutdown, a move the GAO said violated federal spending law. (Photo courtesy Grand Canyon National Park)

WASHINGTON – The Trump Administration violated federal law when it diverted funds for national park improvements toward keeping places like Grand Canyon National Park open during the last government shutdown, the Government Accountability Office said Thursday.

The 17-page legal opinion claims the Interior Department’s decision to use park maintenance fees for day-to-day services – including bathroom cleanup, trash collection and security – showed “a misunderstanding and misapplication” of the law and “tears at the very fabric of Congress’s constitutional power of the purse.”

Administration officials Friday pushed back against the “absurd and heartless” GAO finding, noting that they were scrambling to keep parks open during the 35-day federal government shutdown, the longest in history.

“At the direction of the president, the administration made the partial lapse in appropriations as painless as possible,” Jacob Wood, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in an email.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, one of six Democrats who asked the GAO to look into the fund diversion, said that does not give administration officials a pass to do whatever they want.

“Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and his advisors consider federal laws a nuisance, not a set of standards,” Grijalva said in a statement. “Nothing is safe from the administration’s demands – not our environment, not our way of life, and certainly not the intent of Congress.”

The GAO findings centered on a Jan. 5 memo from Bernhardt to the National Park Service deputy director directing the agency to use locally collected park fees, meant for maintenance, for certain daily services “until such funds have reached a zero balance.” Bernhardt said the department would repay the funds once the government reopened.

The move allowed parks to open on a limited basis, without rangers or programs or anyone to collect admission fees but with basic services such as toilets and security.

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No admission numbers were kept, but the number of visitors to the Grand Canyon appeared to be up during the December-to-January shutdown, based on the amount of trash taken out and toilet paper taken in, according to numbers from the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce.

The GAO said it gave Interior an opportunity to respond to its explain its actions before the findings were published, but the department did not participate. That did not stop Interior, however, from disagreeing with the “GAO’s erroneous opinion” that it said we premature.

“The Department acted well within its legal authority to clean up restrooms and pick up trash so the American people could enjoy their national parks,” said a prepared statement from an Interior spokesperson.

But Jeff Ruch, Pacific director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the GAO report is a result of a rogue executive branch, and that misuse of funds is one of multiple offenses committed by the Trump administration. He said the law “assumes executive branch commitment to following the rules set forth by Congress.”

Emily Douce, director of operations and park funding at the National Parks Conservation Association, said it was alarming that Interior did not cooperate with GAO – but not surprising.

“It’s very concerning that this seems to be a pattern with this administration,” she said. “They want to do whatever they want to do and not follow the law.”

The Western Caucus, headed by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, said Interior was not given “adequate time to respond to this misguided attack from Rep. Grijalva and others with an anti-Trump agenda.” He said Bernhardt should be applauded for keeping parks open, not assailed.

“The Obama administration continuously used their immigration fee slush fund to support an open borders agenda and illegal amnesty programs,” Gosar’s statement said. “Where was GAO then?”

Douce said the shutdown was a blow to national park financial stability and integrity, especially as parks were damaged due to lack of safeguards during the shutdown. She said her organization called for park closures only after damage was reported at such places as Joshua Tree National Park in California.

The report “takes care of the issue on the funding end of things. Where’s the help for the natural and cultural resources that were damaged?” Douce asked. “That we still don’t have an answer to.”

Although it has no power to enforce its recommendations, the GAO warned that it will “consider any future use” of Bernhardt’s approach “to be a knowing and willful violation” of appropriations law. If there are future violations, they must be report to Congress, the officials responsible must be identified and the department must explain corrections made, GAO said.

Grijalva also warned that Congress and voters are watching carefully.

“Should Republicans shut down our government again at the end of this fiscal year, Congress and the nation will look to this ruling and hold the administration accountable for every dollar they attempt to steal from the American people,” his statement said.

Sustainability Reporter, Washington, D.C.